The irony over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's sermons is complex. On one hand, many African Americans often do not agree with everything that is said by their pastor on Sunday morning. But there is a permissive space for the prophet to be human, to be frustrated and redemptive, and to be divinely inspired and respected.
Most African Americans have a refined ear to hear and appreciate those different chords and notes. African-American worship can be authentic jazz, like Monk, Mingus, and Marsalis and, of course, Miles. It's complex; it's cathartic; it's combative and courageous. It's jazz and it's spiritual. The preacher may explore the spiritual by deploying a rift on his sermonic trumpet. The preacher's riff may be in harmony; it may not. Sometimes it becomes a part of the sermon lexicon; and that is a cultural expectation and norm, pushing the auditors to listening limits.
In fact, the African-American church's existence was a birth pushed from an abolitionist's philosophy. In the antebellum period, the founders of African-American churches saw contradictions in the nation's founding ideals and practical application. It took a civil war to guarantee those rights for all its citizens, and a Civil Rights movement to claim them. After all of that, many African Americans remain ambivalent and skeptical; many wonder if really they are welcome here. Thus, their existentialism.
As Vincent Harding writes, "This ambivalence is not new. It is ours from the beginning. For we first met the American Christ on slave ships; we heard his name sung in hymns of praise while we died in our thousands chained in stinking holds beneath the decks locked in with terror and disease and sad memories of our families and homes … Our introduction to this Christ was not propitious. And the horrors continued on American soil. So all through the nation's history many black men have rejected this Christ — indeed the miracle is that so many accepted him." This was in part the beginning of seeing Christianity through a different lens, namely, Afrocentristic Christianity, a faith born out of a desire for freedom and justice, namely black liberation theology.
It's a corrective theology that makes room for people of darker hues of color. As abolitionist Henry Highland Garnett cried in a sermon titled "Awake," "Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been — you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen than live to be slaves."
Garnett's desire for freedom strangely sounds close to Patrick Henry's defiant words for freedom and independence before the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775. "It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" This is a source of energy that fuels an African-American religious communal experience. It's patriotic, it's prophetic, it's passionate, and it's faithful to the spirit.
Still so many do not know, and that's the irony; if they did know, it would prevent such reactionary demands to reject and denounce cultural sermonic blasts against perceptions felt and realized. If known, the preacher prophet's trumpet would not be a strange sound; nor feared as treason. That is the irony; it's ignorance.
We watch them bounce balls, run and hit them, we listen to them sing; we watch their mothers lament their sons — facing extinction, by way of felons and criminal charges; we watch their persons fade away; but we know very little about their pathos, a people — who are survivors of legal discrimination, underfunded schools, and economic sclerosis that hardens their tissue that destroys their family spinal cord. Mr. Wright bemoans their cultural worldview and still claims hope in Christ who is raised from the dead.
This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2008, edition of The Washington Times. Used by permission.